WASHINGTON — The US Department of Agriculture has issued transitional standards for its school meal programs that give schools time to transition toward more nutritious meals as they battle operational issues caused by COVID-19. The standards, set for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years, focus heavily on whole grains, milk and sodium.

Under the standards, schools and child-care providers serving children age 6 and older may offer flavored low-fat (1%) milk in addition to non-fat flavored milk and non-fat or low-fat unflavored milk. At least 80% of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast each week must be whole grain-rich. The weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will remain the same as the current levels for the 2022-23 school year. For school lunch only, there will be a 10% decrease in the sodium limit in the school year 2023-24, which will align with the US Food and Drug Administration’s guidance that establishes voluntary sodium reduction targets for processed, packaged and prepared foods in the United States.

“We applaud schools’ heroic efforts throughout the challenges of this pandemic to continue serving kids the most nutritious meals possible,” said US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack when the transitional standards were announced Feb. 4. “The standards we’re putting in place for the next two school years will help schools transition to a future that builds on the tremendous strides they’ve made improving school meal nutrition over the past decade.”

The USDA in the fall intends to issue a proposed rule that moves toward updating nutrition standards for the long term.

A School Nutrition Association 2021 supply chain survey issued in November found more than 96% of respondents cited challenges with suppliers not carrying sufficient menu items needed to meet nutrition standards, including whole grain, low-sodium and low-fat options.

“School nutrition professionals are frantic just trying to get enough food on the tray for our students amid relentless supply chain disruptions and labor shortages,” said Beth Wallace, president of the School Nutrition Association. “We greatly appreciate USDA addressing regulatory requirements and look forward to further collaboration with the Department to assess the viability of nutrition standards moving forward. With school nutrition professionals already planning menus and placing orders for the fall, we also urgently require Congress’ approval of waiver extensions to ensure all students continue to benefit from healthy school meals.”

Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, MD, president of the American Heart Association, said he recognized the pandemic has placed an “unprecedented strain” on school meal programs.

“This new rule will help bring stability to schools as they continue to operate in an uncertain environment and put healthier foods back on the menu,” he said. “By clarifying the standards for sodium, whole grains and milk for the next two school years, this rule brings the meal standards closer to the strong, evidence-based standards that were adopted in 2012. However, closer will not ultimately be enough. These standards must be temporary and serve as a bridge to stronger nutrition standards based on the latest nutrition science.

“We support USDA’s plan to issue a new science-based proposal this fall that would align the school meal nutrition standards with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Those new standards, which would take effect for school year 2024-2025, should require schools to offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and more whole grains, which are key components of a healthy diet. The new standards must also limit the amount of saturated fat and sodium, including moving forward with the sodium targets contained in the 2012 rule and developing a fourth sodium target that further lowers sodium consumption in younger children.”

The USDA will accept comments on the transitional standards until March 24. Comments may be submitted atwww.regulations.gov. They also may be mailed to Tina Namian, chief, school programs branch, policy and program development division – fourth floor, Food and Nutrition Service, 1320 Braddock Place, Alexandria, VA 22314. The final transitional standard rule will become effective July 1.